Book Review: Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not

I received Jesus is Lord Caesar is Not from IVP for the purposes of reading and reviewing the book. I am under no obligation to give a positive review.

The book is edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica and features several authors critiquing the thought of the New Testament being “anti-Empire.” They look at the writings of several scholars over the recent years who have put forward the idea that the New Testament is a subversive text and the purpose is to give veiled criticism of the Roman Empire.

This book piqued my interest for several reasons. I have a friend who has as a tagline on her Facebook page regarding political views: “I don’t do empire well.” Also, I worked my way through NT Wright’s Simply Jesus a couple of weeks ago and was fascinated by the idea of “Kingdom allegiance.” That added to what I read from James Smith a couple of years ago in Desiring the Kingdom.

The question put forth in this volume is this: Is the New Testament as subversive as recent scholarship seems to claim? The answer generally is “No.” However, I appreciated the volume not simply saying, “No, the New Testament is not a subversive text at all.”

It was more a call for balance, to realize that saying, “Jesus is Lord” in Roman times did indeed mean something. It just may not have meant, “Tell Caesar where to stick it,” or something like that.

As the introduction points out, the whole idea of being “anti-Empire” seemed to gain steam when George Bush was president and we didn’t like his war policies. Now that we have a different president there may be some modification to that whole idea.

I thought Judith Diehl’s chapter on “Anti-Imperial Rhetoric in the New Testament” was extremely helpful. She took the time to walk through some Roman history and different views on how emperors should rule in the Roman world. She points out that the Church comes into being in a time when the Roman Empire held to the belief that the emperor had absolute power. There could be a hostile environment if the empire thought some rhetoric appeared to be “anti-emperor.”

While emperor worship was not obligatory for most people, to publicly worship an “unseen God” represented by a “peasant Jew” who was crucified as a criminal by Roman authorities could be seen as a challenge. It was at least open to scrutiny (p. 45).

She offers a question as to whether Paul in Acts 22-28 is the same as the person who authored the epistles because they seem like two different people (p. 51). Did Paul’s view change as he grew older?

Diehl’s quick overview of the entire New Testament was a good start. Other chapters offer more specific critiques of specific NT books (like Matthew) and specific scholars who wrote on just how “subversive” the New Testament writers were in those books. Generally, the consensus is that the NT is not quite a “subversive” and “anti-Empire” as those scholars may claim.

In the conclusion, the warning is clear. When you have a hammer you think everything is a nail. That’s good advice whether it’s an academic exercise or church ministry. We can have an “anti-Empire” burr in our saddle and then read everything that way. That works when you don’t like a particular president, but when you like the next president and his policies, it may tend to tone down your rhetoric.

Personally, I like the work of Smith and Wright on this issue. The Kingdom calls for allegiance and that means the allegiances of this world will clash with our Kingdom allegiance from time to time. Whose Kingdom do we serve?

This is a book worth exploring and it helps bring a bit of balance to the understanding “empire” and what that may truly mean in a New Testament context.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not

  1. Thanks Dan. I love this topic and reading about 1st century Rome. You gave me some nice books to explore. I would say I tend to lean towards the anti empire view and would also love a little balance! Blessings.

  2. The Gospels reveal constant conflict between Jesus (the king of his new kingdom) and the leaders of the kingdom of Israel (especially the scribes and Pharisees, then in Jerusalem the chief priests and eventually Pilate). So while the Roman Empire is not the focus, Jesus’ kingdom confronts all the kingdoms of earth, beginning with Israel. I think Revelation is the N.T. book that focuses more on the Roman Empire (revealing its political leaders to be bloodthirsty “beasts,” and its economic leaders to be like a luxurious “harlot”). As another world empire, the U.S. acts similar to Rome, regardless of which politician rules.

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